Some Rules and Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible
1. Let Scripture interpret Scripture.
A correct interpretation will always be consistent with the rest of the Scriptures. Therefore, it is essential for us as students of the Bible to interpret a passage in light of what the rest of the Scriptures say on the topic. There are Scriptures that are somewhat confusing. Peter himself tells us that (2 Ptr. 3:16)! When that is the case, rather than seeking to make an interpretation based on one verse, it is essential to examine other, perhaps more clear, passages of Scripture.
You recall there in the wilderness, Jesus was fasting for 40 days, when Satan came along to tempt him. We see there in that temptation something pretty interesting. Satan knows the Word of God. He seeks to lead Jesus astray from the will of His Father, by quoting Psalm 91:11.
"If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.''"
Satan left out an important phrase form that original phrase. He left out the phrase, “in all Your [God’s] ways.” According to the psalmist, a person is protected only when he is following the Lord's will.
But Jesus replied by interpreting Scripture with Scripture. What did He do? He quoted...
“You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
Jesus used Scripture to interpret Scripture when he was tempted by the devil. By doing this, Jesus was saying to us that a passage of Scripture must be understood in the light of those clearer and more expressive Scriptures.
So, if the section of Scripture that you are seeking to interpret seems difficult, or vague, go to a clearer passage that speaks on the same subject more thoroughly. This is important to do, or you can easily come to wrong conclusions.
Now, turn over with me to John chapter 10. With each of these rules that we’ll look at, I’d like to show you how failing to follow the rule has led to a variety wrong interpretations. Notice that in v.15 Jesus said, “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep" (John 10:15). We might conclude, based on what Jesus says here, that the death He died on the cross was only for the sheep. And that is what some have concluded. There are Christians today who believe that Jesus’ death on the cross only paid the price for a select group. They call this teaching “limited atonement.” But we need to check Scripture with Scripture. When you do, what do you find out? You find out that Jesus died on the cross for everybody.
1 John 2:2 says...
“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave Himself a ransom for all.”
“Then,” someone might ask, “why not are all people saved?”
Because the forgiveness of sins does not occur until a person turns from His sins to the Lord and places His trust in Jesus (Acts 17:30, John 3:16, 1 Jn. 5:12). Christ’s atonement is unlimited, but it’s application is limited only to those who believe. If a person insists on opposing God and rejecting Him, then what Christ did on the cross for that person will not be applied to them. God will not force His salvation upon somebody who does not want it.
John 3:16 says...
“Whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Unbelief is the reason that some do not receive the benefits of Christ’s death.
So, be careful not to base your conclusions, or build your interpretation of a Scripture on a single Scripture, but on Scripture as a whole. Scripture is the best interpreter of itself. Because that is the case, the first commentary you should consult on a passage is what the rest of the Scriptures have to say on the topic being examined. Commentaries, concordances, indexes in the back of your Bible and books on systematic theology can be very helpful in pointing out other verses on topics that you may be unfamiliar with.
So, the first rule or principle: “Let Scripture interpret Scripture,”; incredibly simple and yet so important to put into practice!
A second rule...
2. The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph must be derived from the context.
The context of a passage is absolutely critical to properly interpreting the Bible. Why? Well…
• Every word in the Bible is part of a verse.
• Every verse is part of a paragraph.
• Every paragraph is part of a book.
• Every book is part of the whole of Scripture.
Because that is the case, no verse of Scripture should be divorced from the verses around it.
Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze:
– the President's speech by listening to a short sound bite
– a painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting
– Handle’s “Messiah” by listening to a few short notes.
Every word you interpret must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it. Jehovah's Witnesses are famous for taking verses out of context, but so are some well-meaning Christians.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Turn over to Colossians 3.
"And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful." NKJV
This verse is often quoted in studies about knowing the will of God. Why? Well, I’ve often heard that the word “rule” (v.15) in the Greek means “to arbitrate, or to govern.” And that is correct. So, it has been said that we are to let the peace of God arbitrate or govern us as to our decisions. How do we know the will of God? Some say:
– Having peace about something indicates God’s "green light."
– Lacking peace about something indicates God’s "red light."
But, hold on a second, is that what that verse is talking about? Not at all. Let’s read the verse in its context.
Let’s start back in v.12.
12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” (NKJV)
Paul’s not talking about decision making or discerning the will of God at all! Paul is instructing them about unity in the body!
Notice, he talks about…
…“bearing with one another” (v.13)
…“forgiving one another” (v.13)
…“put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v.14)
Having “the peace of God” is to, as F.F. Bruce said, “rule in the sense of arbitrating [or governing] differences that arise in the body.” Rather than warring with one another, Christians are to forgive one another, to love one another, to be at peace with one another.
Q. How is that going to happen?
We are to as Christians “let the peace of God rule [our] hearts.” That’s what Paul is saying. It is wrong to take this verse out of context and use it as a proof text to support the teaching that: “Having a peace about something confirms whether or not something is God’s will for your life.”
Let me ask you a question…
Q. When God told Moses that His will was for Moses’ life, was to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go, do you think Moses had a peace about it? (Exodus chapter 3-9 or so). No. He was full of fear and doubt.
Did that mean that that wasn’t God’s will for his life? No.
How about Gideon? Did he have peace as he heard God’s will for his life? No, he was very fearful.
How about the disciples out there on the storm tossed Sea of Galilee? Did they have a peace about it? If anybody could be sure that they were in the center of God’s will, it was those men! Jesus told them to go right out into the storm!!
As Christians we are to have the peace of God that surpasses understanding (Phil 4:7) but a lack of peace does not confirm that something is not God’s will. A lack of peace may be because of unbelief, lack of faith, or our unwillingness to trust the Lord.
Isaiah 26:3 says..
“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” NKJV
A lack of peace may simply indicate that a person needs to trust God, or go to Him again in prayer. If Christians only moved out in faith when they had peace about things, I imagine there would be far less ventures of faith taking place, far less witnessing.
Another example of a verse that is often lifted out of context would be Isaiah 53:5. There you are praying for a person, and one of the other persons who prays says something like, “Lord we know that you are going to heal this person because Your Word says…
“…And by His stripes we are healed.” NKJV
Have you heard that verse used in such a way? I have. Well, if you examine Isaiah 53 you’ll notice that Isaiah says there doesn’t have anything to do with physical healing. The passage is about what the Messiah’s death would do for our spiritual condition, and the healing of our sins, not our physical bodies.
So again, to rightly interpret God’s Word you have to be very careful to consider the context of the passage, i.e., that which has just been said and that which follows.
3. Interpret the Scriptures knowing that the goal in interpretation is not to discover hidden, secret truths, or to be unique in your interpretation.
God has given us His Word in order to reveal Himself.
– It is not a book of dark mysteries, and riddles, it is a book of self disclosure.
– He is not a God of confusion, but of clarity.
– He has not spoken in order to conceal, but to be understood and known.
Therefore, when we come to His Word we need to realize that it is the plain meaning of the text that we are seeking to understand.
We need not look for hidden, esoteric, cryptic truths. God has preserved His Word to speak to the multitudes of ordinary people that they might be saved. So, don’t pass up the obvious and natural meaning of a text looking for something “unique” and “deep.”
Many of the times someone has excitedly shared with me something really “unique” and “deep” that they discovered in the Bible, something they’ve never heard any teacher share, they have usually been wrong.
It is tempting as you study the Scriptures to discover things that no one else has ever seen before.
But if you’re discovering things like that, you can almost bet that you are making the Scriptures to say things that were never intended by the original authors.
Unique interpretations are usually wrong.
This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that unique interpretation should not be your aim. [p. 14 How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth]
Your goal is to discover the plain, simple, straightforward meaning of the text, the meaning the original author intended to communicate. Number four follows…
4. Interpret the Scriptures literally unless you have good reason to believe that they are figurative.
There are those today, and there have been those throughout Church history that have believed that Scripture has hidden, secret, mystical meanings underneath the plain and obvious meaning of a text.
That is, they believe that although the Scriptures say one thing, they actually signify something else, something other than what is said.
Some of the early church fathers (men like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome) believed that every Scripture had two, three, even four or five interpretations.
Their influence led to the widespread medieval belief that every verse of Scripture had numerous meanings.
Many of the early Church Fathers were influenced in this direction by the Greek philosophers who did this with the writings of Homer and Hesiod.
This method (or approach) to interpreting the Bible is called the: “Allegorical method”
To allegorize is to say, “Well, in this passage, this represents this, and this represents that, and basically, this whole story is a picture of this...” That is to turn a passage of Scripture into a spiritual parable, some story with a deeper meaning. There are hundreds of examples by well known teachers through church history who have done this!
Here are some examples: Do you recall the story of Jacob and his two wives in Genesis 29? Well, one teacher said that Leah represents the Jews, Rachel represents the church, and Jacob represents Jesus who serves both. Another has said that as Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands, it was an Old Testament picture of Christ on the cross. One said that the twelve stones taken from the Jordan River represent the 12 apostles. One said that the field in the book of Ruth is really a reference to the Bible. Ruth represents students. The reapers in the field represent teachers. One said that the Red Sea symbolizes the atoning blood of Christ. One said that five kings who attack Gibeon in Joshua chapter 10 represent the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Why is allegorizing and spiritualizing the Scriptures dangerous?
A. Allegorized interpretations are not based on anything objective. They can’t be verified. They are based solely on the subjective preferences and whims of the interpreter’s imagination. This becomes obvious when you hear another person teach on the same passage and they have an entirely different twist on the story. One person says that such and such a thing represents this, while another person says it really represents this. This is one of the reasons allegorized interpretations are dangerous. There are no guidelines, or boundaries.
B. A spiritualization of the Scriptures doesn’t have any authority. I’ve heard some teachers say some things and I’ve wanted to stand up and say, “How do you know that? Show us how you’ve come to your conclusions. Show me in the Word.” If I can’t be shown in the Word of God then the words of a preacher lose their authority.
This allegorical method of interpretation that led to these kinds of interpretations, dominated most of Christian history. It was not until the time of the Reformation during the 1500 - 1600s that there was a major turning away from this approach to interpreting the Bible. Men like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, and John Knox saw the dangers and the problems with this method and took a stand for a literal method of Bible interpretation.
John Calvin said that allegorical interpretations were “frivolous games” and that to interpret the word in that way was to torture the Scriptures.
Martin Luther strongly denounced this method…
He said: “When I was a monk, I was an expert in allegories. I allegorized everything…..I consider the ascription of several senses to Scripture to be not merely dangerous and useless for teaching but even to cancel the authority of Scripture whose meaning ought to be always one and the same….Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.”
Martin Luther became a strong advocate instead for a literal method.
…a method in which, the only meaning which one may ascribe to the text is that which the author intended, as one is able to reconstruct it in the historical context and with ordinary rules of grammar.
These mens' rejection of the allegorical approach to Scripture was revolutionary.
And it was with them, that the allegorical stronghold on the church began to crumble. And from that point forward much of the church has gone back to interpreting the Word of God literally.
Now, why do we believe that interpreting the Word of God literally is actually the way God desires that we interpret it?
There are a couple of reasons. The best reason though is because Jesus consistently interpreted the Word of God literally. Whether it was the Old Testament account of…
– the Creation account of Adam and Eve (Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Mark 10:6)
– Noah's Ark and the flood (Matthew 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27)
– Jonah and the great fish (Matthew 12:39-41)
– Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15)
– or the account of Lot and his wife (Luke 17:28-29).
Jesus (and the New Testament authors) consistently interpreted these stories literally as actual historical events. So, if Jesus and the New Testament authors interpreted the Bible literally, then we must also. There were no esoteric, mystical, allegorical, or spiritualized interpretations!!!
Now, when we talk about the need to interpret the Scriptures literally, that does not mean we are ignorant of the use of certain grammatical devices (similes, personification, metaphors, symbolic language)
1 Peter 5:8 says...
Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
It’s clear that Peter is using a figure of speech. He’s comparing the devil to a lion. It does tell us something very literally about the nature and purpose of the devil. It is easy to understand that when Jesus said that He was “the vine” and the disciples were “the branches” that He was speaking figuratively.
There are times when it is less obvious that the author is speaking metaphorically or figuratively. But there are usually some clues that are built into the context. We’ll talk about those clues in an upcoming class. So don’t read into the text things that were not intended by the original author. Let the text speak for itself rather than reading into the text things that aren’t there. When you approach the Scriptures, keep in mind that what a passage means was fixed by the author and is not subject to alteration. Your goal is to: discover the author’s intended meaning, the only true meaning. A text cannot mean what it never meant. Meaning is determined by an author; it is discovered by the reader.
Robert Stein, author of A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, said this:
“To treat a text in complete isolation from its author’s intended purpose is like stealing a patent from its inventor or a child from the parent who gave it birth...To take it [the text] and place upon it our own meaning is a kind of plagiarism. There is a sense in which we have stolen what belongs to someone else. A text is like a “will” the author leaves for his or her heirs. It is mischievous to interpret such a will and ignore the intention of its author.” [Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Playing by the Rules, p.22]
It is common for Bible study leaders in small groups to go around the circle after reading a passage of Scripture and ask the people:
“What does this verse mean to you Steve?”
Steve says, “To me, this verse means…”
And the leader will say, “Oh that’s interesting. I haven’t heard that before.”
“What does this verse mean to you Lisa?”
Lisa will say, “To me, this verse means something entirely different…”
And she goes on to give an entirely different interpretation.
“Wow, that really blesses me.”
Well, the question that the leader asked, “What does this mean to you?” is not a question that really matters.
The question that matters is: “What does this verse mean?” PERIOD.
A better question for the study leader to ask would be:
“How does this verse apply to you.”
There are many different ways of applying a Scripture, but there is still only one correct meaning for each passage.
That is the author’s intended meaning. That is the meaning that we are after.
(For more on this important topic, I recommend
Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck).
CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL (Twitter: @charlieabready)
Charlie Campbell is the Director of the Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry and a popular guest speaker at churches and conferences. He is the author of numerous articles, books, and DVDs, including:
• Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
• Evidence for the Existence of God
• One Minute Answers to Skeptics
• Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
• The End Times: Ten Upcoming Events in Bible Prophecy
• The Case for the Resurrection
• Teaching and Preaching God's Word
His DVDs and books have been endorsed by Norman Geisler, Charles Colson, Chuck Smith, Ed Hindson, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Jeremy Camp, and many others.